DISNEY WORLD’S WINE MECCA
Market-inspired cooking and a passionate wine program make the California Grill one of Disney’s–and the nation’s–top culinary and wine destinations. by Rona Gindin
How do you sell 150 cases of wine a week when your operation is surrounded by people dressed like mice, dogs and ducks? * Just ask George Miliotes and the staff of the California Grill, the stellar dining attraction at Walt Disney World. That a restaurant in such a locale could sell more fine wine than most restaurants in the country is astonishing to the outsider, but it proves that training, education and great service can make the difference in virtually ANY setting.
“Wine sales are all about education,” explains restaurant manager Miliotes, the aficionado behind the wine program. “Guests come here with money to spend, and when we educate guests we sell wine. People remember where they learn new information, and that builds a loyal following. That doesn’t mean we sell $200 bottles to each table. The 100 by-the-glass selections open the world to our guests.”
California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Left: bar area. Right: view at night.
Sales pitches help, too, and servers are required to give a wine spiel to each table. “That’s how I open,” says Jeff Kundinger, a server and certified sommelier who helps order the restaurant’s wines. “I say, ‘You’ve got the wine list in front of you. Everything on it is available by the glass. If you want to taste a wine first, that’s okay. If you don’t see your favorite wine, I will help you find something similar. And, there is a good chance it is on our reserve list.'” Since food and wine menus are printed every day, there are no specials to recite in addition to the wine pitch.
The wines carried here include many well-established California labels found in fine dining establishments, from both big-name wineries such as Beringer to small boutique ones like Peter Michael Winery and Barnett Vineyards. The quantities sold at this family-oriented tourist mecca seem amazing at first glance, given the typical image of visitors to the Magic Kingdom toting Mickey Mouse balloons and taking slow-moving mechanical boat rides through a Small World. One might think that most diners at every eating establishment would order cola.
But Disney World is far more than Fantasyland, and the menu, wine program and customer base at the California Grill are proof of that. Located on the 15th floor of the high-end Contemporary Resort, California Grill attracts the upper echelon of the tens of thousands of tourists who descend upon the resort complex on any given day. Disney bills it as the resort’s showcase restaurant, and local critics support the claim.
The wine list at the California Grill changes daily, and is a showpiece on its own. Overseen by Miliotes, the features 100 wines a day, all of them available by the bottle or the glass. Most are from California. Selections on a typical day might include Torii Mor pinot noir from Oregon, a Cuvaison merlot from Napa and a Cafaro cabernet sauvignon from Napa. A reserve list doubles the wine options, including Stag’s Leap “FAY” cabernet, Morey Santenay “Vielles Vignes” pinot noir and Matanzas Creek “Journey” chardonnay.
The California Grill is one of 500-plus restaurants, nearly 80 of them full service, that meet the breakfast, lunch and dinner needs of the complex’s many types of tourists: families with small children, conventioneers on corporate budgets; and newlyweds, who choose Disney World for honeymoons more than any other domestic location, among others. The restaurants are located in four theme parks, three water parks, 18 hotels and several other venues.
The menu is creative and ever-changing, offering a variety from tempura bonsai tuna and salmon roll with spiced miso vinaigrette to tamarind barbecue beef filet with crushed boniato and buttered swiss chard. Entrees run from $18 to $30. Meals are prepared in an open kitchen that juts out into the dining room, allowing easy viewing access as cooks and chefs sear, braise and steam. Large windows offer views of Cinderella’s Castle and other Disney attractions.
Variety and tableside pouring alone don’t sell 150 cases of wine a week. An educated–and a wildly enthusiastic— staff are important contributors. The education comes at two levels: when the restaurant opened five years ago, servers began learning about the initial 40-selection wine list during daily pre-dinner meetings; today, they still taste and discuss one new wine before service each evening. Eighty percent of the restaurant’s servers have been on staff since the opening, so they’ve had the opportunity to learn quite a bit in that time. On occasion vendors will give 45-minute educational presentations to the entire waitstaff.
In addition, many of the servers have taken advantage of Disney World’s wine education program, in which they are invited to study to be sommeliers through a program between Disney and the Master Court of Sommeliers. Five servers–yes, waiters (and a bartender!)–on California Grill’s staff have already earned certification as sommeliers; Kundinger and Kaleel are studying now to become advanced sommeliers, a status few people in the world have achieved. The education feeds a competitive frenzy among the servers, many of whom seem to love wine personally.
Having an educated staff has freed Miliotes from ordering all wines himself; he now has Kundinger and Kaleel do most of that, which has the second benefit of giving the servers opportunity for career advancement. “Our ordering is fueled by need,” Kaleel explains. “We look at the mix, at what’s in inventory, and make sure we maintain a balance.” Their biggest challenge, all agree, is keeping a good stock of California wines in the $40-$60 price range. “Prices of California wines have been out of control, and it’s hard to find good bottles we can sell at $40 a bottle,” he says.
The duo take their purchasing so seriously that they do some of the work at home: Kundinger’s wife pours competing wines for them blind at his house. “We don’t always agree,” Kaleel acknowledges, “but we’d be foolish to think that something one of us doesn’t like might not pair well with our food and sell well. Wine is so subjective.”
All of these efforts do sell wine. Thirty-three percent of the California Grill’s sales are for beverage alcohol, and, of that, 90 percent to 95 percent are for wine. “I may be backwards, but I don’t offer any signature drinks,” Miliotes points out. “I have a full bar, but I want servers to be selling wine–not kamikazes–at the tables. That’s our calling card.”
When it seems appropriate, servers encourage even drinkers of low-end wines to inch up a notch, helping them through the process of wine appreciation that Miliotes says tends to begin with sweet wines like white zin and over time lead to a love of complex white burgundies. “If someone wants a white zinfandel, I’ll tell them we’ve got a Riesling from Germany they’re going to love. If they try it, they will have had something they’ve never had before, and learn in the process,” says Kaleel.
For more advanced wine drinkers, the goal is to expand their wine horizons to higher levels still. “We talk about EBC–Everything But Chardonnay,” Kundinger laughs. “Most of our customers know chardonnay and merlot, so we’ll take them to a Viognier or a Riesling. It opens whole other doors for them.”
Even the house wines at California Grill are of decent quality. Seven wineries produce house wines for the restaurant, from a Ravenswood zinfandel to an Iron Horse “Millennium” sparkling and a Honig cabernet. These are wines that earn high grades in wine publications. “We’ve got to have some wines that are always here, for the people who want that,” Miliotes explains.
When customers ask Kundinger for a chardonnay recommendation, he’ll talk to the guests first. “I’ll ask them what they like about chardonnays they’ve had in the past, then offer them tastes of three to five different ones, and talk about the differences,” he explains. “I let them choose which one they want.” The benefits last beyond the sale of one glass or bottle, he has found. “I’ve got a customer for life. The next time they’re in–whether they’re a local and return the next month or a conventioneer or vacationer who visits once every two years, they will return to this restaurant and order another great bottle of wine.”
“I know that if I give someone three choices, they will pick one, and I have the sale of anywhere from one glass to more than one bottle,” adds Lee Kaleel, also a server, sommelier and wine orderer.
The tastings are not as much as a money-drain as one might think. “If I give someone a half-ounce taste of Phelps Insignia and they love it, chances are I’ll sell two or three glasses of it,” Kundinger notes. “But if I pour a whole glass and they don’t like it, I’ve wasted five ounces of a bottle that we sell for $145. That is where your liquor costs get sorely out of whack.”
California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. George Miliotes, Manager.
While Disney World, like any large institution (this one employs 55,000 people on site), is big on controls, California Grill’s wine list seems to be exempt. Miliotes can order whatever wines he deems appropriate. And, he gives his servers the freedom to pour free tastes for any customer interested in testing out a wine before ordering it.
By-the-glass wines are poured right at the table, as if the whole bottle had been ordered. “If you order a $10 glass of wine, don’t you deserve to see the bottle it comes out of?” Miliotes asks rhetorically. “There is no romance in having a beautiful wine poured at the back bar. People like to see the label also so they recognize it later on; in fact, customers often ask us to give them the label so they can remember exactly what they had.”
Alternatives after dinner are another story. The dessert menu lists several single malt scotches and single barrel bourbons along with ports, dessert wines, grappas and eau-de-vie, ranging from $7.50 to $200 a glass.
Here, too, education makes a difference. Miliotes tells the story of a young couple having dinner at the California Grill recently who had never tasted sushi before. The waiter explained what sushi was, and explained wasabi and other accompaniments. The couple tried the sushi and enjoyed it. They wanted to linger after their meal, so their server recommended port, which they had never had. “They sought me out at the end of the meal to tell me about their great experience, about how they learned about sushi and learned about port as a great way to end a meal,” Miliotes reports. “These are the little things that make a restaurant successful. Every guest is different, and if you pay attention to what they want, you can see many opportunities.”
The California Grill’s next wine step will be decanting. “We just bought a ton of decanters because we sell some merlot and cabernet that are a little young, and they need to get air into them,” Miliotes explains. “But we won’t do it in any fussy way.” Since the cooks in the open kitchen wear baseball caps, that seems to be an appropriate approach.
Mark-ups are reasonable by industry standards. A wine costing the restaurant $15 will be priced at $30 or $35, while a bottle costing $60 will be priced at $120. “We try to be extremely fair to the customer,” Miliotes insists.
A strong contingent of customers are locals: 30 percent on weeknights, 60 percent on Friday and Saturday. Miliotes nurtures that business by giving regulars his pager number and working extra hard to get those folks in without a wait. Many of the waiters give out their home phone numbers for the same reason, and as a result serve the same clients again and again.
Of course, it takes the right kind of person to be able to wait tables and sell wine. “I look for happy and intelligent people, first and foremost,” Miliotes explains. “If they have the right personality to sell, I can educate them about wine.”
And they’ll take it upon themselves to educate customers. So while these visitors to the Orlando, Fla., area may have spent their mornings at a “Character Breakfast” inside Cinderella’s Castle, they may end their day watching the fireworks over the castle from the picture windows in California Grill’s elegant yet bustling dining room, capping off their meal with a $125 glass of Remy Martin “Louis XIII” cognac. Or a $7.50 glass of Booker’s Small Batch Bourbon from Kentucky. Either way, they may feel that Disney has lived up to its promise of being the “happiest place on earth.”